Not long ago I was doing some cleaning at home when a piece on CBC radio caught my attention. It was about the social harm caused by the use of smartphones. I was recently reminded of the show during a conversation on the presence of smartphones in worship. Here’s the link to the piece on The Current. Click play while you’re cleaning up the kitchen.
Host Anna Maria Tremonti starts things off saying, “Our relationships with our phones are damaging our relationships with each other.” Of course this isn’t an all-or-nothing issue. We can have these devices and use them well, but that isn’t the natural pattern. The various social out-workings of tools aren’t neutral. Smartphones are built to engage us, keep us from being bored and connect us to others without the necessity of seeing or hearing them. Here’s how Tremonti’s guest, M.I.T. professor Sherry Turkle, puts it: she says smartphones “offer us promises as though from a benevolent genie.” Part of the problem is that we need the things these devices take away. We need periods of boredom, we need chances to disconnect and we need in-person interaction. Termonti’s interview is a fascinating conversation that ranges from the effect of smartphones on dinner to new hesitations about certain learning technologies.
For congregations the issue isn’t just that phones show up in the hands of youth during worship, or more likely in the hands of their fathers. The more important issue is the one Turkle gets at, which is the way these devices (de)form our social abilities. Church communities are irreducibly social and inherently embodied. A declining ability to form and cultivate deep relationships with real people is a challenge to the core of the practice of the Christianity.